Tuesday, September 4, 2012

"Purposelessness" in Higher Education ... Augusta, Georgia Example ... Get More from the Taxpayers

Augusta, Georgia has combined its locally based state medical school, Georgia Health Sciences, with the local publicly supported undergraduate college, Augusta State University (ASU).

Both are domiciled in Augusta, so maybe that's the reason for the merger. In other words, as I get it, cost considerations prompted the combination. So far, so good, assuming the government powers that be know what they're doing with respect to running a business and making the numbers work, a dubious assumption at best.

But let's focus solely on the kind of education people are receiving at the locally based undergraduate college ASU.Only 7% of students graduate in 4 years, and only 25% graduate within 6 years. That latter percentage compares unfavorably to the 47.5% graduation rate for the state and 55.5% for the nation as a whole.

But college officials say that's not a fair comparison. ASU is a commuter school and many part time students therefore don't intend to graduate. They instead just take a class or two occasionally. Hence, benchmarking graduation rates with those of other colleges throughout the state, they argue, is comparing apples to oranges.

Ok. But what measurement does make sense? Or is expecting some kind of performance for taxpayer support unfair as well? As taxpayers, what are we spending, and what are we getting for that expenditure? That's a simple question.

Stated another way, what's the goal and what does the cost-benefit analysis reveal? Or is there one?

In other words, how do we measure whether we're getting our money's worth as taxpayers? Does anybody even try to justify the money being spent, or is the purpose just to bring them in, get their money and move on to the next candidate.

Are these schools just trying to get butts in the seats and as much government money as they can for so doing? How does the graduation rate, timetable and amount per student of student loans and Pell grants enter into the equation?

And if they do, where's the transparency? Why don't the college officials report on those performance factors? Are the taxpayers being taken for a ride by the school's administrators, along with the non-graduating but debt laden students?

So now let's take a brief look at what do the local administrators think about all this. ASU battling low graduation, retention rates has this to say about that:

"As officials work to consolidate Augusta State (primarily undergraduate commuter college) and Georgia Health Sciences (Georgia's medical school) universities (both based in Augusta), they are attempting to address twin ills at ASU: a dismal graduation rate and falling enrollment. They acknowledge that eradicating those problems could be a lengthy process.

“What is more worrisome is those people who are lost completely from the system,” GHSU Provost Gretchen Caughman said. “They have put their time, money, whatever scholarships, as well as the resources of the institution and the state into a process, and they don’t really have the credential at the end.”

In 2010, only 25 percent of ASU students completed a bachelor’s degree within six years and only 7 percent finished in four. That’s compared with the 55.5 percent of students nationally and 47.5 percent in Georgia who finished within six years.

Carol Rychly, ASU’s vice president for academic affairs, said the low graduation rate is mostly a reflection of student demographics and a lack of intervention in the past. About 8 percent of students had academic records that did not meet the school’s standards but were still accepted based on ASU’s open admissions policy, Rychly said.

ASU also has a large number of nontraditional commuter students, many of whom juggle academics with raising families or full-time jobs. These students can struggle to make school a priority when other obligations come first.

In the future, Rychly and Caughman said, they want to see a shift in the type of student they accept to the consolidated university. Having traditional 18- to 22-year-old students who come for the full college experience will raise the graduation rate and enrollment, they predict.

“We do see again the need to really attract the kind of student that would come with that four-year campus life experience in mind,” Caughman said. . . .

Currently, almost all of ASU’s students are from Georgia, and most live within driving distance of the campus, Rychly said. Part of the growth strategy has to be dorms, dining facilities and student activity centers on campus.

“It is a beautiful campus, (but) it is still a commuter campus,” Caughman said. . . .

“We want to continue to serve our local cohorts and provide the opportunities that they have been enjoying and been accustomed to,” Caughman said. “But we have got to draw in a different market as well. And to do that we have to have freshman dorms. And we have to have a whole campus life experience that, frankly, the students and their parents expect.”"

Summing Up

It seems like the college wants to become something it's never been. A live-in school.

It also seems like the college officials don't want to justify their current performance or the current graduation rates of the students. And any kind of transparency based cost-benefit analysis for taxpayers seems to be totally missing from the conversation.

Build dorms is their answer to all this? But why will Georgia's taxpayers want to pay for them? And what would be the projected benefit to taxpayers, assuming a comparable graduation rate to that of today? Or even double that of today? Would it represent money well spent or money down the drain?

What's the cost to the taxpayer per graduating student today? Or is that an unfair question?

And what are the Pell grants and student loans outstanding for each attendee who graduates or doesn't graduate, as the case may be?

And if we're not going to provide this information to taxpayers, why not just close down the facility and let the students enroll elsewhere in the area? At least we'd save some money and the students could still attend and graduate from area colleges.

People entering college should be serious about graduating in a reasonable period of time. And those granting these students permission to attend the school should be serious about giving each student every opportunity to do so. 

And if some students just want to take a course or two, that's ok as long as we know who's there for what, and that people, including taxpayers, are getting their money's worth.

Thus, for those students only taking a few part time courses for whatever reason, they shouldn't be counted in the statistics along with those who enter to graduate.

And if finances are an issue for the college, which they are, who is going to provide the money for the new dorms, dining facilities, activity centers and the like? It's real money being spent or "invested," and taxpayers don't have unlimited funds.

This all smacks of more government knows best spending without our "public servants" being in any way held accountable for results. When government uses the magic word "students" together with "investments" or "loans," hold on to your wallets, fellow Americans.

Finally, it must be great not to have to concern oneself with what things cost or what kind of quality educational opportunity the institution is providing to its attending and graduating students. Or what benefit the taxpayers are getting as a result of the "investments" and "loans" to these "students."

Costs and benefits, expected and realized, including metrics related thereto, must become an integral part of the higher education equation. And all other forms of government expenditures as well.

Otherwise it's an exercise in "purposelessness." And an expensive and unaffordable one at that.

That's not an investment. It's a waste.

Thanks. Bob.

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